Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series

pa-consEarlier this week C-SPAN was at Messiah College to film a lecture in my “Pennsylvania History” course for its “Lectures in History Program.”  I was scheduled to teach the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 on Monday. I probably could have picked another, perhaps more exciting, topic for C-SPAN, but I have been spending time thinking about this state constitution lately and thought I could use it to make some larger points about Carl Becker’s famous statement about the Revolution as a debate over “home rule” and “who would rule at home.”

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was the most democratic state constitution in the newly established United States.  It had a unicameral legislature and a plural executive.  Power rested in the legislature. While there were other states (Vermont and Georgia) that had unicameral legislatures, the Pennsylvania government was unique because it gave the right to vote and the right to hold office to all males, regardless of wealth or land ownership.  This meant that the one-house legislature was virtually unchecked by a governor or an upper-house.  Members of the legislature had to swear an oath of loyalty to this new government.  Proceedings were open to the public and published in newspapers in both English and German.  This was democracy at work.  Several historians and political scientists have pointed to the influence of Thomas Paine on its framers.

My intention in this post and others that follow is not to provide a full history of the Pennsylvania Constitution. (Paul Selsam’s 1935 The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 is still the best book on the subject).  Rather, I am particularly interested in some of the religious dimensions of the constitution and the religious context that may or may not have shaped some of it. Stay tuned for more posts over the next several days.

The Author’s Corner with Spencer McBride

pulpitandnationSpencer W. McBride is a historian and documentary editor at the Joseph Smith Papers. This interview is based on his new book, Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Pulpit and Nation?

SM: Pulpit and Nation grew out of my doctoral dissertation. In graduate school, I set out to discover the actual role of religion in the American Revolution and the process of state and national formation that followed. Through my research—which included reading numerous diaries of early American clergymen and the lay men and women who sat in their congregations—I became fascinated with the curious interrelationship that I encountered: the political utility of religion and the religious utility of politics. I wrote this book that enabled readers to understand the power, limitations, and lasting implications of early national leaders using religion as a tool for political mobilization.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Pulpit and Nation?

SM: In the founding of the United States of America, early national political leaders deliberately created an alliance with the country’s religious leaders, an alliance designed to forge a collective national identity among Americans. Accordingly, while religious expression was common in the political culture of the founding era, it was as much the calculated design of ambitious men seeking power as it was the natural outgrowth of a devoutly religious people.

JF: Why do we need to read Pulpit and Nation?

SM: Religion mattered in the founding of the United States, but not in the way many Americans think that it did. There is certainly no shortage of controversy surrounding the role of religion in politics, particularly where the founding era is concerned. Talk of America’s founding as either a “Christian” or “secular” nation remains a common theme among politicians, pundits, and certain segments of the general public despite scholars’ warnings against such overly-simplistic constructs (warnings that include your own timely Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?). I present Pulpit and Nation as an example of how the history of religion in early American politics appears when viewed in all of its complexity, an elucidation of how its relationship to power structures looks when we delve into the motives behind the religious utterances of men seeking to mobilize the public to one cause or another. My book demonstrates that by eschewing the “Christian Nation” question altogether and engaging broader themes and narrower questions, religion’s significant in the politics of the Revolutionary era is more apparent, albeit more complex.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SM: I actually decided that I wanted to be a historian at age 13. My father majored in history in college and, as a result, our house was filled with history books and historical discussion for as long as I can remember. This means that I was exposed to the study of the past from a young age. Then, in 8th grade, I had a phenomenal United States history teacher named Ron Benovitz who taught the subject in such an engaging way that I was absolutely hooked from that point on. I knew that I wanted to be a historian, although I had no clue what such a career would actually look like. As I progressed in my education and the details and options of working as a historian became increasingly clear, my passion for the discipline continued to grow. I consider myself quite fortunate to be doing as an adult what I dreamed of doing as a teenager.

JF: What is your next project?

SM: I am currently working on two projects that I am particularly excited about. The first is a documentary history of New York’s Burned-over District. The book will feature primary source documents that illuminate the cultural and social transformation of western New York amid the waves of religious revivals that swept through the region during the Second Great Awakening. The second project is a book about Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign, and how the controversial Mormon leader’s little-known run for the White House illustrates the political obstacles to universal religious liberty in nineteenth-century America.

JF: Thanks, Spencer!

Americans Have Always Believed That They Were Living in a Christian Nation

Religion and “Hamilton”


In his review of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Broadway hit “Hamilton,” Peter Manseau, the new curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, writes: “Miranda’s ingenious retelling of Revolutionary-era U.S. history studiously ignores common eighteenth-century notions of the role religion should play in society, replacing them with the fully privatized faith of today.”

But wait!  Perhaps religion does play an important role in “Hamilton.”  Civil religion that is.

Here is Manseau again:

Yet despite the play’s stalwart separation of church and founding statesmen, there remains something about Hamilton that strikes a religious nerve: namely, the way that its various canny subversions of the popular imagery of the Founding era ultimately reaffirm the American creation myth. The musical’s off-the-charts popularity stems from more than Miranda’s catchy hooks and inventive lyrics. As Hamilton continues to swell into a bona-fide reflection of the zeitgeist, one underlying factor seems most responsible for its rise: Miranda’s fable of the republic’s founding offers a way to take part in the cult of sacred history without the usual birthright credentials and ritual obeisances. This is no mere hip-hopera; it’s an altar call for would-be patriots previously too burdened by ambivalence to fully embrace the American faith.

The favored avatars of this faith may change with the times, but its creed does not. The birth of the nation remains our One True God. The Revolution, the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers serve as something of a trinity establishing the culture’s unquittable cosmology and incontestable truth. Seen this way, Hamilton is less a new vision of the past than a translation of the sacred stories of American civil religion into the vernacular—in this case, the lingua franca of contemporary pop culture, a mashup of hiphop, R&B, rock, and show tune samples. And like any vernacular rendering of a text considered holy and immutable, it is at once radical on the surface and retrograde underneath—the best example in years of how a dominant worldview adapts to survive social change.

Read Manseau’s entire piece at The Baffler.

Revised Edition of *Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?* Is Almost Here

RevisedThis morning I finished reviewing the page proofs for the new, revised edition of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical introduction.  

The revised edition will have a new preface and epilogue.  The preface discusses the reception of the book and the epilogue gets the reader up to speed on the way Christian nationalism has been used in American political culture since the first edition appeared in 2011.

The revised edition will be available next month. Still not too late for classroom adoption, assuming that you will be reading it later in the semester.


Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 5

MetaxasWe are in the midst of a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  You can get caught up here.

This post examines Metaxas’s understanding of the First Great Awakening and, specifically, the role in the Awakening played by George Whitefield.  Since Metaxas devotes an entire chapter to Whitefield and connects the eighteenth-century ministry of the evangelist to the coming of the American Revolution and the creation of the United States of America, it is worth spending some time exploring his treatment of this topic.

As Metaxas correctly points out (over and over again), George Whitefield was extremely popular.  During the height of the evangelical revival known as the First Great Awakening he was, without a doubt, the most popular person in the British-American colonies.  As the first inter-colonial celebrity, Whitefield’s message of the New Birth did play a unifying role in the colonies.  The evangelist forged an inter-colonial community of the saved. Indeed, this is why many historians have traced the origins of American evangelicalism to Whitefield.

But after establishing Whitefield as an American rock star who brought the colonies together in unprecedented ways, Metaxas’s argument goes off the rails.  First, it is worth noting that not everyone liked Whitefield.  There were many who opposed him or simply did not care about what he had to say about the state of their souls.  On p.112, Metaxas cites evangelical pastor John Piper as a historical authority on this issue.  Since there is no footnote (there are only 8 footnotes in the entire book) I have no idea where Metaxas got the quote, but Piper apparently once said: “by 1750 virtually every American loved and admired Whitefield and saw him as their champion.” I like John Piper–but he overstates his case here.

Second, and perhaps most troublesome, is Metaxas’s effort to turn Whitefield into some kind of spiritual founding father of the American republic.  Here are the passages worth thinking about more deeply:

p. 100:  “During his lifetime [Whitefield] would cross the Atlantic thirteen times, but it was this second trip to America that would forever alter the landscape of the New World, which in turn would affect the rest of the world. Because it would unite that scatting of peoples into a single people, one that together saw the world differently than any had before and that was prepared to depart from  history in a way none had ever done.  What would happen during his time in the thirteen colonies would begin the process of uniting them into something greater than the sum of their disparate parts, would begin the process of preparing them to become the United States of America.”

p.103: “Americans were becoming united in the wake of his nonstop preaching.  People were being offered a new identity that fit well with the American way of thinking.  Some were German by background and some were French and some were English, but none of it mattered.  They were all equal under God; they were all Americans.  This was something new, an identity that was separate from one’s ethnicity or one’s denomination.  To be an American meant to buy into a new set of ideas about one’s equal status in God’s eyes–and by dint of this to be accepted into a new community, to be an Americans.

p.112:  “[Whitefield] united the colonies as they had never been united, articulating what they came to believe.  So that everyone who accepted these views about liberty and independence–with all of their ramifications and corollaries–would have this in common with the others who did; and sharing these ideas set forth by Whitefield became a vital part of what it meant to be an American.  All who believed these things began to think of themselves as Americans as much as–if not more than–they thought of themselves as citizens of Connecticut or Maryland or North Carolina, for example.  The various members of the thirteen colonies thus slowly became a people; and these people–this people–would eventually seek political independence and would become a nation.”

Metaxas suggests that Whitefield paved the way for the American Revolution.  At one point in his book he even describes Whitefield’s conversion, which took place while he was a student at Oxford University, as “a hinge in the history of the world–a point on which everything turns.”  Not only does this imply that Whitefield somehow triggered the American Revolution and the birth of the United States, but it also feeds into Metaxas’s argument, which we will discuss in a later post, that God raised up America as an exceptional nation to accomplish His will in the world.

To be fair, there are several historians who have suggested a link between Whitefield (and by extension the First Great Awakening) and the American Revolution.  The argument goes something like this:  Whitefield’s egalitarian message taught the colonists that they were all equal before God and his preaching in local communities taught the colonists how to challenge the authority of ministers who had not experienced the New Birth.  This new sense of equality and resistance to tyrannical authority was then somehow transferred to the political realm, thus explaining the colonial resistance to Great Britain in the 1760s and 1770s.

Those who make this argument today do so with a great deal of caution.  But Metaxas throws caution to the wind. No legitimate historian would take this argument as far as he has done in the three passages I quoted above.  The reason why so many historians tread lightly when connecting the evangelicalism of the Great Awakening to the American Revolution is because there is limited concrete evidence that the founding fathers, or the people for that matter, were specifically drawing upon evangelicalism as they articulated their political resistance to England.

Metaxas is basically trying to argue for the evangelical origins of the American Revolution. The New Birth, he suggests, melted away all other forms of identity–ethnic identities, local political identities, religious identities–into a unique and exceptional “American” identity.  He offers a Whig interpretation of the American Revolution on steroids.  It fails to explain the persistence of ethnic identity in the decades following the Revolution.  It fails to explain the states-rights and local orientation of the Articles of Confederation.  It fails to explain denominationalism as it developed in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War.  And it highly exaggerates the influence of Whitefield, evangelicalism, and the Great Awakening on colonial life.  Metaxas fails to realize that religious belief was not particularly strong at the time of the American Revolution.

Finally, let’s remember that the First Great Awakening was a transatlantic spiritual movement.  Whatever unity among evangelicals that Whitefield helped to create was not unique to the British-American colonies.  Whitefield preached the same gospel message in England, Wales, and Scotland.  The people in the British-American colonies who embraced the New Birth saw themselves as part of a movement that was transatlantic in nature.  In other words, the Great Awakening made the religious and cultural relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies stronger, not weaker.

The Great Awakening was a deeply religious movement that had a profound impact on ordinary people and their relationship with God. Metaxas’s interpretation makes it into a political movement. When people experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit they were not thinking about the ways in which their newfound encounter with God was planting the seeds of rebellion against England.  It is time to stop interpreting the Great Awakening through the grid of the American Revolution.

Stay tuned.

Religion and Digital Humanities in the Classroom

PA newspaperThis semester I have been following Kate Carte Engel‘s “History of Religion in America to 1865” course blog.   As part of the course Engel’s students are building a database of references to religion in revolutionary-era American newspapers.  I am really interested to see the finished product.

I should also add that Engel is an excellent blogger. She should consider continuing the blog (or starting a new one) after the semester is over.

In her most recent post, Engel discusses some of the challenges of her assignment.

Here is a taste:

We’re half way through our shared project of transcribing newspaper articles from the revolutionary era so we can analyze them for what they tell us about religion and the revolution. The results are very promising – the decrease in anti-popery, rising fears of irreligion and deism, the hollowness of a slave society talking about slavery and liberty without acknowledging the very real slaves in its midst, and Benedict Arnold as the devil. And that’s just naming a few of a top flight stack of projects. In short, we’ve got some fantastic studies that touch on the main themes of the era in a complex way. Every one of them is teaching us more than if I’d put together a list of articles on the subject.

But today, in the doldrums of the spring semester, I’m struck by the way that doing a DH project in the classroom is fundamentally different from traditional history teaching. Instead of having a syllabus that proceeds chronologically through a series of primary and secondary sources, we’re taking a third of the semester to dig deeply into particular topics through this framework. The work is not more time consuming, but it is a different kind of work.

The upside of this is that the students are “doing history.” They’re producing something that has, as far as I know, never been done before. We have lots of studies of religion, and lots of studies of the revolution, but none I’ve found that look specifically at what people in read and wrote in the newspaper about religion at this time. It’s not a comprehensive study by any means, but they’ve already found some really interesting things.

A Hessian Tries to Understand Religion in Revolutionary America

HeinrichsJohann Heinrichs was a member of the Hessian jager corps occupying Philadelphia in January 1778.  In this letter to friend in Hesse, dated January 18, 1778, he tries to make sense of the religious influences on the American Revolution.

He writes:

Call this war, dearest friend, by whatsoever name you may, only call it not an American Revolution, it is nothing more nor less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion.  Those true Americans, who take the greatest part therein, are the famous Quakers.  The most celebrated, the first ones in entire Pennsylvania and Philadelphia and Boston are, properly speaking, the heads of the Rebellion.

Source: Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography XXI:2 (1898)

Thanks to Chris Juergens for bringing this letter to my attention.

Is Heinrich’s confused about Quakers leading the charge or is he referring to the so-called “weighty friends” in Philadelphia who did support the Revolution?

*Was America Founded as a Christian Nation* Is Being Assigned Alongside These Books

keep-calm-it-s-on-the-syllabusAre you familiar with the Open Syllabus Project? The creators describe it in today’s New York Times.  Here is a taste:

…Over the past two years, we and our partners at the Open Syllabus Project (based at the American Assembly at Columbia) have collected more than a million syllabuses from university websites. We have also begun to extract some of their key components — their metadata — starting with their dates, their schools, their fields of study and the texts that they assign.

This past week, we made available online a beta version of our Syllabus Explorer, which allows this database to be searched. Our hope and expectation is that this tool will enable people to learn new things about teaching, publishing and intellectual history.

At present, the Syllabus Explorer is mostly a tool for counting how often texts are assigned over the past decade. There is something for everyone here. The traditional Western canon dominates the top 100, with Plato’s “Republic” at No. 2, “The Communist Manifesto” at No. 3, and “Frankenstein” at No. 5, followed by Aristotle’s “Ethics,” Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” “Oedipus” and “Hamlet.”

I thought it would be fun to see what books are being assigned alongside Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction on college syllabi across the country.

Here are some of them:

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

Jack Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics: An Intepretive History of the Continental Congress

Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

Sylvia Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age

Jon Butler, Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776

Gary Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America

Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America

Daniel Driesbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State

Jack Greene, The American Revolution

Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence

Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic

Thomas Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution

David McCullough, John Adams

Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man

Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

John Shy, A People Armed and Numerous: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence

Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region

Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution

Saul Cornell, The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828

Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans

University of Oxford Bound


Pembroke College, Oxford

Later this week I will be at the University of Oxford to speak as part of a panel titled “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”  I will be joined by Owen Anderson of Arizona State University and Peter Thompson of St. Cross College, Oxford.  The session is sponsored by the Seminar in Constitutional Thought and History at the Rothermere American Institute.

The event will take place at Pembroke College’s Allen & Overy Room from 17:00-18:30pm.  If you are in the area I hope you will come by and say hello!

Boston 1775 Debunks the "Black Robed Regiment"

Can you bring something back that may have never existed?

J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 is good. Very good. 

A group of Christian nationalist evangelical ministers known as “The Black Robed Regiment” has been in the news recently. Dan Fisher, the Oklahoma state representative who wants to ban the AP U.S. History course in the state, is a self-identified member of this “regiment.”  The clergy in the “Black Robed Regiment” claim that they are modeling their movement on the eighteenth-century ministers who used their pulpits to promote the American Revolution.

Bell traces the phrase “Black Robed Regiment” to a conversation between Glenn Beck and David Barton on a 2010 episode of Beck’s show.  His recent post shows that many of the stories of patriotic eighteenth-century ministers used by today’s “Black Robed Regiment” are based on very weak evidence.  He has also found what appears to be a comment from a Barton researcher that was inadvertently left in a footnote on Barton’s page devoted to the regiment.

Here is a taste:

In fact, Google Books can’t find the phrase “black robed regiment” from anysource prior to this century. It appears that Barton made it up, inadvertently or on purpose, based on the actual period phrase “Black Regiment,” which I’ll discuss tomorrow.

My favorite footnote in the article is attached to this passage:

“When Paul Revere set off on his famous ride, it was to the home of the Rev. [Jonas] Clark in Lexington that he rode. Patriot leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams were lodging (as they often did) with the Rev. Clark. After learning of the approaching British forces, Hancock and Adams turned to Pastor Clark and inquired of him whether the people were ready to fight. Clark unhesitatingly replied, “I have trained them for this very hour!” [47]”

The note:

“[47] Franklin Cole, They Preached Liberty (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1941), p. 34. Only source we can locate is Cole’s.”

I doubt that second sentence was meant to be left for us to see. It indicates that Barton and his research team had enough questions about whether “Pastor Clark” really said those words to look for a better source than a book published by a Christian evangelical press 166 years after the event. But they failed to find any other source to support Cole’s quotation, despite the many accounts and histories of the Lexington alarm—which should have made them skeptical about that book. Instead, Barton cited it in this essay seven more times.


The Author’s Corner with S. Scott Rohrer

Scott Rohrer is an independent historian who has published several books on religious history. This interview is based on his new book Jacob Green’s Revolution (Penn State University Press, November 2014).

JF: What led you to write Jacob Green’s Revolution?

SR: When I finished my previous book on religious migrations in early America, I turned my attention to the American Revolution—my initial thought was to explore how a Presbyterian community functioned during the war, in an attempt to understand what made church members such fervent backers of the Revolution. I wanted to know what was happening on the ground, religiously and socially, during the war. So I began reading about a Presbyterian community that seemed like a good candidate for a case study: Morris County, N.J., a Presbyterian-Whig stronghold if there ever was one. Presbyterians dominated the religious landscape in Morris and wholeheartedly backed the war.

As I read through the primary and secondary sources for this community, a name kept jumping off the page: Jacob Green. I had never heard of him, but I became more and more intrigued by his story as I learned more about this remarkable man: Green wrote a bestselling tract (a social-religious satire), helped persuade New Jerseyans to declare for independence, and fought for the abolition of slavery, among many other things. I also found that no one had written a modern biography of him. There was a personal reason as well for this change: my first book (on the Moravians’ agricultural settlements in North Carolina) was a community study, and I realized I really wasn’t interested in doing another one. It would be fun to do something different, to write a biography.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Jacob Green’s Revolution?

SR: Jacob Green was all about reforming society, so this book seeks to explain why—and to explain why his source of energy is important to our understanding of revolutionary society. And my argument is that Calvinism—for all its seemingly crazy predestinarian beliefs that many contemporaries saw as inhibiting reform (where’s the incentive to act morally, to do good, to reform society, if God has preordained your fate, and this fate is immutable?)—spurred on Green’s reform drive and was vibrant, even revolutionary, compared with, say, High Church Anglicanism.

JF: Why do we need to read Jacob Green’s Revolution?

SR: To be blunt, some reviewers will be asking this very question: why should we care about someone so obscure? Admittedly, this parson from Morris County, N.J., is not a household name, even to historians of the revolutionary period. Few have heard of him. Which is exactly why I think he’s worthy of study. At heart, I’m a social historian who finds the obscure just as interesting and important as the famous. This book details the life of a little-known revolutionary who pursued a reform program that was as radical and ambitious as anything pursued by the Adamses and Jeffersons of the revolutionary world. Green’s life provides an enlightening look into the ways religion influenced—and did not influence—society during the revolutionary era.

I’d like to think this book is worth a read for a second reason: Jacob Green’s Revolution experiments with the biographical format. Religion’s influence on the Revolution was not uniform. So I decided to tell an alternate story between the main chapters in an effort to show this, and to better demonstrate Calvinism’s inherent radicalism. The second story revolves around a High Church Anglican named Thomas Bradbury Chandler who lived about 20 miles from Green and was Green’s polar opposite: both were New Englanders who came to New Jersey to become ministers; both pursued reform causes; both were influential writers—but they took opposite sides in the revolutionary drama and had far different conceptions of society and religion’s role in it. So Chandler’s story, told as narrative-driven vignettes, is meant to sharpen our understanding of Green’s radicalism. I also hope readers, especially general readers, will simply find Chandler’s story interesting and entertaining.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SR: History’s in my DNA. I always hated math and science and never, ever considered pursuing a career in business. From a young age I was fascinated by colonial America—the architecture, the people, the times they lived in. Besides taking trips to Williamsburg, visits to the old family farm in Lancaster County, Pa., also hooked me on early American history. My ancestors were German Mennonites, and my great-grandfather’s farm was a trip back in time. Those Mennonite roots helped pique my interest in religious history. I was utterly fascinated by the Mennonites, Moravians and others, and how their religious beliefs influenced the way they lived.

JF: What is your next project?

SR: My next project builds on Jacob Green’s Revolution—it takes a deeper look into religion and revolution by focusing on the British Atlantic world over three centuries. The work that’s been done on religion and the American Revolution is outstanding, and the quality of this work is forcing me to try to find fresh ways to approach the topic. That’s a healthy exercise.

I do think studies attempting to explain religion’s influence—or lack of influence—on the Revolution are too focused on the 18th century and the Great Awakening. A long, long history of religious turmoil stretching back to Henry the VIII helped condition the colonists to react a certain way when the crisis with British authorities began in the 1760s. This history was centered on the English Church’s attempts to impose conformity and the backlash this attempt created. So to fully grasp the religious dimensions of the revolutionary crisis, I’m going all the way back to Tudor England and the attempts during the Elizabethan period to stifle dissent and create a consensus for a state church based on a middle way (“via media”).

The book will be divided into three sections that look at religious conflict through a series of case studies: the Tudor period; the Laudian years of the 1630s; and the American scene in the 18th. I’m most interested in comparing/contrasting England, Scotland, Ireland, and America (including Canada) over the three periods and showing how important this history was to the American colonists and their impending revolution. The bishop’s cause and Thomas Bradbury Chandler will figure prominently in the story, too.

JF: Thanks, Scott! Sounds good.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Sacred Scripture, Sacred War

James Byrd teaches American religious history at Vanderbilt and is the author of a new book on the Bible and the American founding that has been getting a lot of attention lately.  Over at Jesus Creed, David Moore interviews Byrd about Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution.  Here is a taste of Moore’s interview:

Moore: What were the most popular passages of Scripture which preachers used to muster support for the American Revolution?
Byrd: Most popular was Romans 13; which included commands for obedience to civil rulers. Understandably this was a major text used by loyalists to oppose the Revolution, so patriots had to deal with it at length.
Second was Exodus 14-15; the parting of the Red Sea story, which made sense for patriots who felt that they were like the Hebrew slaves under bondage to the Egyptian Pharaoh, which they related to British tyrannical policies. Paul’s commands on the freedom of Christ (Galatians 5) was third, which they related to civil freedom as well. Fourth was the story of Deborah and Jael in Judges 4-5. This included the famous Curse of Meroz against any who did not join in God’s army to fight. There were several other popular texts, including many from David’s life, including his victory over Goliath, which made sense for patriots who saw themselves as Davids going up against a new Goliath in the British Empire.
Moore: Were there any influential ministers who preached pacifism?
Byrd: There were pacifists. Anthony Benezet, the great abolitionist, wrote Serious Considerations on War and its Inconsistency with the Gospel (1778). It went through several printings and patriotic preachers responded to it at length. Benezet and others made use of the Sermon on the Mount, which was another of the most cited texts because patriots had to respond to it.

AHA Session Overview: "Fracturing a Global Empire: Religion and Place in the American Revolution"

This morning (AHA  Day 2) I had the privilege of presenting a paper on a panel devoted to religion and the American Revolution at the Winter meeting of the American Society of Church History.  The session was entitled “Fracturing a Global Empire: Religion and Place in the American Revolution.”  My fellow presenters were Katherine Carte Engel of Southern Methodist University and Christopher Jones of the College of William and Mary.  Mark Peterson of Cal-Berkeley provided the comment.

Jones led things off by giving us a taste of his dissertation research on transatlantic Methodism with a particular focus on Canada and the Caribbean.  This is a wonderful project.  Chris’s work will definitely expand what we know about Methodism in early America from the works of Dee Andrews, John Wigger, and Cynthia Lyerly. 

I tried to challenge the prevailing (although Peterson did not think it prevailing) paradigm that links the First Great Awakening to the American Revolution.  My focus was on Presbyterians. 

Engel argued that both traditional or “territorial” Anglicans and “evangelical” Anglicans in England cared little about the American Revolution.

Peterson described our panel as a “religious dog that does not bark in the night.”  He suggested that all of our papers suggested, in one form or another, that religion was not a factor in the American Revolution.  While I don’t think that such a suggestion was a completely accurate portrayal of my paper (I argued that religion was important, but evangelical Christianity was not), all of the papers questioned  whether it was appropriate to understand the American Revolution in religious terms.

Peterson said that the scholarly conversation on the relationship between religion and the Revolution is still stuck in the Cold War–a time when it was important to connect religion to American nationalism as a counter to “godless” communism.  In other words, this conversation is still embedded in a kind of consensus or “homogeneous” history that thinks about religion less as a local or regional phenomenon and more as a force that contributes to nationhood.

Peterson said that there is no intrinsic reason why religion should be an explanatory factor for explaining the American Revolution.  He called for a new synthesis–one that he thought our papers were moving toward–that focused more on the diversity of religious experience in eighteenth-century America.

As far as my paper was concerned, Peterson raised questions that I have been wrestling with for several years.  First, he chided me for making a vague reference to the Enlightenment as a more plausible reason for Presbyterian political activity.  Indeed, the reference to the Enlightenment was vague.  I wrote an entire book on what might be called the “Presbyterian” or “rural” Enlightenment and as I argued in that book, the Presbyterian embrace of the Enlightenment was essential to understanding why the members of the denomination became patriots.  Second, Peterson asked me to be more specific about the term “Presbyterian.”  Was is it really a religious category?  Or was it more of a political or ethnic category.  This is a question I continue to try to nail down and it was one that I grappled with a bit in a recent paper on the Paxton Boys massacre of 1765.

Peterson was a great commentator.  He handed back my paper with dozens of marginal comments–stuff he did not bring up during the formal response.  I could not ask for anything better from a commentator on a panel like this.  It was also a pleasure to see Chris and Kate again.  I am eager to read their forthcoming works.

Christopher Jones on James Byrd’s *Sacred Scripture, Sacred War*

One of the books that is near the top of my reading list this summer is James Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution.  

Over at Religion and American History, Christopher Jones, a graduate student at The College of William Mary, reviews Byrd’s book and places it in a larger context of work on religion and the American Revolution.

Here is a taste of his review:

Byrd’s book, subtitled “The Bible and the American Revolution,” analyzes the context and content of “over 17,000 biblical citations in over 500 sources” in an attempt to understand what role the Bible played in motivating colonists to war and inspiring soldiers to fight. In a biblically literate society like British North America, orthodox Christians and avowed skeptics alike cited scripture in promoting and defending the Revolution. 

But the Revolutionary War also altered how Americans read and understood the Bible, challenging and changing interpretations of both the Old and New Testaments. Byrd mines his dataset of wartime sermons during the long eighteenth-century to great effect, demonstrating the interpretive challenges colonists faced in rebelling against the British Empire. Whereas the Bible had previously been marshaled to justify war against Catholic imperial rivals France and Spain and non-Christian American Indians (as recently as the French and Indian War of the 1750s and 60s), the predominantly Protestant colonists of North America were now facing off against the British Crown they’d previously held up as the standard and protector of the English-speaking Protestant Empire. Individual chapters focus on prominent biblical passages and themes and the ways in which the colonists skillfully employed them. Some of these are predictable—the American Israelites sought freedom from the oppressive bondage of a wicked Pharaoh (chapter 2); Peter and Paul became preachers of “apostolic patriotism” (chapter 5); and the Revolution and the book of Revelation combined to usher in a new age of American millennialism (chapter 6). Others are perhaps less so—the “prophetic violence” of Deborah and Jeremiah “pushed the limits of just war theory and gave patriots biblical license to endorse the atrocities of war” (chapter 3). Chapter 4’s consideration of “David’s revolutionary heroism” typifies the complexities of biblical interpretation during wartime. For American patriots, David simultaneously served a multitude of roles. His youthful courage personified the patriotic cause (wielding his sling and stone against the British Goliath) and in his Psalms could be found inspiration for wartime violence, “uniting military heroism and spiritual devotion.” He also came to typify the dangers of royal authority, as revolutionaries like Thomas Paine linked his spiritual and moral corruption to his monarchical abuses.

"Religion and the American Founding" Seminar: Day 2

I love doing these seminars for (and with) teachers!!  Unlike many traditional undergraduates, high school and middle school teachers come to a seminar like this wanting to learn.  They are full of questions about the material and are always thinking deeply about how they can connect the content to their classrooms.

The second full day of my “Teachers as Scholars” seminar on Religion and the American Founding covered the role of religion in the United States Constitution and the various state constitutions.  We read relevant parts of seven state constitutions written between 1776 and 1780 and examined how each of the documents treated the issue of religious freedom, religious establishment, and religious tests for office. 

After lunch our discussion turned to Christian Republicanism and Benjamin Rush’s Of the Mode of Education in a Republic.  We focused on how all the founding fathers thought religion should be promoted as long as it helped to produce virtuous republican citizens or, as Rush described it, “republican machines.” 

The two days went by way too fast and I think all of us left yesterday afternoon wanting more.  Here’s wishing Don, Wayne, Krystal, Rodney, Stephanie, and Jake a great summer.  I hope our two days together was informative and useful.

Still Room in Summer Seminar on Religion and the American Founding

On June 17 and 19 I will be leading a summer seminar for school teachers entitled “Religion and the American Founding.”  The seminar is sponsored by the Messiah College Center for Public Humanities and its “Teacher as Scholars” program.  Teachers at levels will receive Pennsylvania Act 48 professional development credit or a certificate of participation that can be used for professional development in another state.

I am really looking forward to these two days.  The seminar is filling up, but I am told that there are still a few seats available.

You can learn more about the seminar and the Teachers as Scholars program, including how to register, here.

I hope to see you in June!